Jeaneen Duensing's voice is crisp and clear as she questions her preschoolers at Tempe's Getz School. She enunciates each new sound.
"Can you find something white?" she asks one boy, emphasizing the "wh" sound. He stands and points to snowfall on the cover of a book.
Duensing's job is to help children articulate their sounds and communicate more effectively.
As a speech-language therapist - and a bilingual one - Duensing is a highly desired employee at schools across the East Valley, and even the nation.
Speech-language pathology is one of the fastest-growing career fields, with schools, nursing homes, hospitals and private companies all competing to stay fully staffed.
Experts say that more frequent identification of speech problems among school-aged children, a higher incidence of autism, as well as an increased number of older adults, has created a growing need for speech and language services.
And the baby boomers who currently make up much of the field are expected to start retiring shortly, leaving schools in even more of a crunch.
The demand is even more pronounced for bilingual therapists, especially in places like Arizona. It is sometimes necessary to assess the children in their native language, because it can be difficult to tell if a struggling child is not speaking well because of a language disorder or simply because they have not yet mastered English.
The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act requires school districts to have enough speech-language pathologists to meet the needs of every special-education student requiring speech therapy. Therapists work with students - both in groups and one on one - to overcome communication problems, either in making sounds or in language comprehension, said Karen Palmer, a speech therapist who works for the Chandler Unified School District. Often, they serve children with disorders such as autism, Down syndrome and attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, plus those who have suffered traumatic brain injury or are mentally disabled.
A survey conducted by the Arizona Department of Education last year found that as of Oct. 1, 2006, there were 159 speech therapist positions in schools that had still not been filled.
In addition, nearly 40 percent of the 1,450 speech therapists working in schools that year were contracted by the district from outside companies.
While East Valley schools aren't facing an acute shortage like their rural counterparts, it's a yearly struggle to make sure they are fully staffed, officials say.
The Scottsdale Unified School District dealt with a speech therapist shortage four years ago by increasing compensation, said Jeff Thomas, director of human capital for the district. At that time, one-third of the district's 43 speech therapist positions were unfilled.
"We did have a pretty significant shortage," Thomas said. "We tried to make some long-term changes in how we address (speech-language pathologists) and compensation."
The district did a cost-benefit analysis and found it would actually save money if it paid its speech therapists more instead of hiring contract employees to help with the workload, he said.
So the district increased pay for speech therapists. Thomas didn't have exact figures on hand, but said the average teacher salary in Scottsdale is $45,000 and speech therapists get 15 percent more than regular classroom teachers.
Today, the district has the equivalent of roughly one full-time position that remains unfilled.
Other East Valley districts are having a harder time.
"We do struggle to find speech therapists for schools," said Diane Bruening, director of pupil personnel for the Chandler Unified School District. "There's been a shortage in schools for several years now."
Often, speech therapists choose to take jobs in the private sector, where the pay is higher.
"We have a hard time competing," Bruening said.
"This is an absolute national crisis, the shortage of speech pathologists, because we have many students, children in and out of schools - you're talking about some 2- or 3-year-olds - that have communication disorders," said Miriam Podrazik, a personnel development director at the state Department of Education. "They are needing help learning to talk, and they are on waiting lists."
She said the department is partnering with all three state universities to increase the numbers of therapists they graduate.
Public schools must compete for a small group of speech therapists coming out of universities with a master's degree, which is required for most speech therapist jobs. Each year, Podrazik said, roughly 30 master's-level therapists graduate from each Arizona university.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that allow people with bachelor-level communication disorder degrees to work as speech technicians, working under the supervision of a therapist and fulfilling therapy requirements set by the supervisor, which helps somewhat with the shortage.
The state provides tuition assistance through competitive grants for speech programs.
While the shortage makes things tough for schools, it presents a great opportunity for college students seeking careers, like Leah Carter, 21, a senior in ASU's Speech and Hearing Sciences program. Carter plans to begin a master's program in the field next year - but she hasn't yet decided whether she wants to work in a hospital, private practice or a school.
"I speak Spanish, and I could work with little kids and use Spanish to help them," she said. "I've heard there are a ton of openings at schools. Really it's something every school needs, every school could really use more than one, from what I hear, because some SLPs at schools have a huge caseload and are overworked."